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Authors: Lauren Layne

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Comedy, #Contemporary Women, #Coming of Age

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BOOK: The Trouble With Love
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“If it is, I’m impressed,” Julie mused. “
My
walks of shame involved a lot more sweat pants with ‘USC’ written across the butt and a dude’s oversized T-shirt and flip-flops.”

“You should totally write a story about this, Em,” Riley said, resuming her dedication to her doughnut. “‘The Walk of Shame for Grown-Ups.’”

“Okay, you guys are making this situation way more interesting than it actually is,” Emma said, holding up her hand with a plea to stop.

“Well, of course,” Grace said, tilting her head. “That’s what we
do
. We sex things up.”

Emma had to grant her that. It
is
what they did.

Stiletto
was the top-selling women’s magazine in the country, and Julie, Grace, Riley, and now Emma were its darlings as the Love & Romance gurus.

Between the four of them, they covered everything from “Ten Things He Secretly Hates” to “Outside-the-Box Anniversary Plans” to “A Beginner’s Guide to Kinky Foreplay.”

The range in stories varied from month to month based on whatever inspiration each woman had, or whatever whim Camille threw at them, but for the most part, they all had their niche.

Julie was all about fun, flirting, and dating: “First Kisses,” “How to Make Him Pant at First Glance,” and so forth.

Grace’s stories were mainly geared toward women already in relationships: “Making It Last,” “Couples Therapy for Newbies,” “Keeping the Romance Alive.”

Riley was sex. All sex, all the time.

And as for Emma? Emma was the resident heartbreak expert—the one who helped women figure out how to cut him loose, or how to survive the aftermath when
you
were the one set loose.

Her most recent article was “Surviving the Single Life When Your Friends Are Coupled Up.”

Emma was able to write that one from personal experience. Hell, Emma would even call herself an
expert
on the topic, because her best friends were very much coupled up. In the best way possible, of course.

When she’d joined the
Stiletto
team a year ago, Julie had already landed the dead-sexy Mitchell Forbes, while Grace and Riley had been single.

Since then, she’d watched Grace fall head over heels in love with hotshot journalist Jake Malone, who she’d married in a small, gorgeous destination wedding a few months ago.

And Riley? Riley had successfully completed her ten-year quest for the heart of Sam Compton. They were getting married in a few months.

But then there was Emma.

Emma was still most definitely single.
Intentionally
.

She dated whenever it suited her, and had had plenty of relationships over the years. But Emma had no intention of shackling herself to a man, no matter
how
happy her friends were.

Because that happiness could be ripped away faster than a burst pipe could ruin your morning. And then you were left with nothing but a gaping hole where your heart should have been.

“Okay, so if there wasn’t a hurricane or prom date gone wrong, what’s with the weird combination of wet hair, au naturel makeup, and glam cocktail dress?” Grace prodded.

Emma filled them in on her apocalyptic flood situation. As she talked, Julie rummaged around in her purse until she came up with a mascara wand, lip gloss, bronzer, and a hairbrush.

She offered them up to Emma, who reached for them eagerly.

Grace checked her watch. “Sorry, Em. You’ll have to rock that natural look a bit longer. Staff meeting’s about to start.”

“Emma, you didn’t tell them the best part of your morning,” Julie said, as the four of them headed toward the conference room.

“What?” Emma asked. “The part where you gave me your caramel macchiato?”

“Nope,” Julie said, “I’m talking about who we saw in the elevator.”

Emma rolled her eyes. Oh.
That
.

“Who?” Riley asked. “Was it the Duchess of Cambridge? I heard she and Prince Willy were coming to the States and I
must
know what hair conditioner she uses.”

“We saw Cassidy,” Julie said in a singsong voice.

“Yikes,” Grace muttered as she pushed open the conference room door. “I hope everyone was bundled up. It’s always like an ice storm when Emma and Alex are in the same vicinity.”

Emma’s eyes flicked to Grace in surprise. It was weird to hear someone refer to him as
Alex.
When they’d gone to college together, the guy had been known only by the last name scrawled across his back on game day. To Emma, Alex Cassidy had only ever been
Cassidy
. Had that changed? Had he grown up? Decided to ditch the soccer superstar identity and go by his first name?

Not that she cared. Whether he went by his first name or last name, it all translated to the same thing:
jerk
.

“Speaking of that ice storm,” Riley whispered, as they filed into the conference room.
“Brrrr.”

It took Emma all of five seconds to know what Riley meant. She didn’t
see
Cassidy so much as
felt
him.

But no matter.

She didn’t know what the hell he was doing at their
Stiletto
staff meeting, and she didn’t really care.

She’d quit caring about anything having to do with Alex Cassidy long ago.

Say . . . right about the time he left her at the altar.

Chapter 2

It was hard not to stop and stare when the reigning queens of
Stiletto
entered the conference room. Or any room.

Instead of sucking all of the air
out
of the space, as the cliché went, it was almost like the four stunning women brought air
into
the room.

And Alex Cassidy didn’t think he was biased just because these women—most of them, anyway—were his friends.

But they
were
his friends. Good ones. Just when he’d started to think Manhattan was the loneliest, most foul place on earth, he’d stumbled on the unexpected:

Friendship.

It had started when he’d clicked with Jake Malone. Jake was one of Alex’s employees, who’d fallen hard and fast for Grace Brighton when the two of them had done a story together.

Then Jake and Grace had introduced him to Julie and Mitchell.

Who’d then introduced him to Riley . . .

And then Sam had entered the picture, and before he knew what was happening, Alex had found himself as part of a group.

One he enjoyed very much. Even if it did mean coming face-to-face on a regular basis with his former fiancée.

He deliberately did not look at Emma when she entered the room.

He only ever looked at her when his guard was down—or when hers was—and neither scenario happened very often.

Instead, he nodded in greeting at Julie, who gave him sassy little smile as she entered the room. Alex didn’t consider himself a smiley sort of guy, but it was hard
not
to smile at Julie Greene. There was something persistently likable about her.

It didn’t hurt that Julie was gorgeous. Her hair was an intriguing mix of blond and brown, her brown eyes sparkling and friendly.

Hell, for that matter, they were
all
gorgeous.

Grace Brighton—no, Grace
Malone
—was all soft curves and class with dark brown hair and hazel eyes.

And it was hard not to take a second look at Riley McKenna, the city’s closest thing to a real-life sex kitten. Tall, with long black hair and a sassy smile, Riley also had a rather exceptional figure, although if Sam Compton ever asked, Alex would swear up and down that he’d never noticed anything but her startling blue eyes.

And then . . .

And then there was Emma.

Emma, whose every feature he knew by heart, even without glancing at her.

Although
not
glancing at her was harder than usual today when she was wearing a sexy-as-sin pink dress that was completely unlike Emma’s usually conservative wardrobe.

There was a story there, clearly.

Not that he cared one way or the other. Not much, anyway.

“Stop staring at my girls,” Camille said under her breath.

Alex spun the conference room chair just slightly in the direction of
Stiletto
’s editor in chief.

“You’ve told them, right?” he asked.

Camille ignored him, continuing to tap out something on her iPad with the awkward, pointer-finger taps of someone only reluctantly familiar with touch screen technology. And touch screen was definitely new to her. Camille Bishop had been in the business longer than he’d been alive and tended to cling to old school methods whenever possible.

“Told them what?” Camille asked innocently. Too innocently.

He gave her a look, which she returned vacantly.

She was wearing big, oversized glasses today. Everything about Camille seemed big. Even though she had a wiry figure, her voice was loud. Her hair was bright. Her personality was . . . massive.

“No, I haven’t told them,” she hissed. “That’s what this meeting is for.”

He groaned. “Come on, Camille. Not even a heads-up?”

She pursed her lips and ignored him.

Shit
.

As in, shit would
definitely
hit the fan when Camille dropped her little bomb on her team.

“Okay, everyone, let’s get started,” Camille said, standing and waiting until the small talk around the table trickled off. “You’ve probably noticed that there’s an extra dose of testosterone in the room today.”

At least two dozen pairs of eyes snapped to Alex. Half of those eyes had been staring even before Camille had mentioned him. There were nearly thirty people in the room, and there was only one other guy besides Alex.

And from the way the one other guy—Oliver, if he remembered correctly—was giving him the once-over, Alex was fairly sure he was the only man in the room who liked women.

He gave a weak smile at the group, wishing he could be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Up on his floor, the
Oxford
guys were probably discussing last night’s game. Instead of joining them, Alex was surrounded by presentation boards covered in everything from lingerie to perfume ads.

He liked to think of himself as relatively modern man. A little gruff and stoic at times, sure.

But he didn’t grunt and drag women around by their hair, or brand them, or scream at them to make him homemade biscuits every morning. And he liked his nice suits and cologne and high-thread-count sheets. He was
evolved
.

But
Stiletto
was too much
woman
. It was like girly stuff on steroids. It made even the most modern man long for beer and onion rings.

“As most of you know, Alex Cassidy is the editor in chief for
Oxford,
our sometimes rival, sometimes partner. He’s the man version of me, so to speak.”

God help him.

“Anyway, he’s here because I have an important announcement to make.”

Camille paused dramatically, clearly waiting for someone to beg her for more info. She frowned when everyone merely stared at her, half-bored, half-expectantly.

Alex hid a smile. Clearly the
Stiletto
editor in chief had cried wolf one too many times. Her team didn’t expect this news to be earth-shattering.

And he supposed it wasn’t. Not really. But it might be to one person in the room.

A person he still refused to look at it.

Camille finally snapped when the silence stretched on ten seconds past awkward. “I’m going on a sabbatical,” she said.

“A what now?” Riley asked.

“A sabbatical,” a snooty-looking blond woman on Alex’s right explained. “It’s when—”

“I know what a sabbatical is, Kandice,” said Riley. “I just didn’t realize
Stiletto
offered them. How do I get one? Because there’s this sex camp—”

Camille held up a hand. “No sabbaticals for you. You want one, wait until you’re editor in chief.”

“Why would I want to be editor in chief?” Riley asked.

“Exactly,” Camille said, looking pleased at the lead-in. “It’s a thankless, tiresome job, and one I didn’t want to wish on any of you while I’m gone for three months.”

“Three
months
?” Julie asked. “We’re leaderless for three months?”

“Not quite,” Camille said. “You need someone to steer the ship, of course. So . . .”

She made a dramatic flourishing gesture in Alex’s direction.

He waited patiently for everything to register with the
Stiletto
crew.

“No. A
boy
?!” Riley said, scandalized.

“I saw him without his shirt once,” Grace said, leaning over. “He’s not a boy.”

Emma leaned in toward her friends, speaking up for the first time. “I saw him without his shirt once, too.
Boy
’s actually not so far off. He’s a little scrawny, and the lower half . . .
eek
.”

Emma’s voice was little more than a whisper, but it reached his ears. It was meant to.

Alex didn’t take the bait. Hell, back when Emma had seen him naked, they’d been young. He
had
been little more than a boy.

And she little more than a girl.

A girl who could take his breath away with little more than a smile.

And when
she’d
taken
her
shirt off, he’d all but lost his mind.

But that was a long time ago.

“Mr. Cassidy has graciously agreed to oversee both
Stiletto
and
Oxford
for the next few months,” Camille said, jerking him back to the present.

A present where he and Emma wouldn’t be seeing each other shirtless . . . . ever.

“Starting next week,” Camille continued, “He will be the one you go to for story approval, PTO requests, relationship advice—”

“Wait, what?” Alex said, speaking up for the first time.

Camille patted him on the head like he was a child, and he caught Julie smirking at him.

Alex gave into a sigh. It was going to be a very,
very
long three months.

“Any questions?” Camille asked.

Julie’s hand shot up. “Um, yes. Like a
thousand
questions. Starting with, where are you going? Is everything okay? Are your ovaries imploding? Are you having a crisis? Can I come?”

BOOK: The Trouble With Love
12.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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